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Passivity and Women in Games

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Thursday, Dec 8, 2011
What is most overlooked in female game characters is competence.

Being a woman in a video game would not be easy. There’s not a single decent, complete set of armor in the world that fits properly.  Your mammary glands swell until you’re so top heavy that your skeleton may well warp. There’s plenty that’s already been said about how women are outwardly portrayed in games—as pornographic caricatures of an adolescent boy’s masturbatory fantasy—but what about female characters’ behaviors and mentalities? Women in games are useless as NPCs and passive, powerless agents when they’re controlled.


It’s nothing new to notice the sexualization of women in media, especially games. Neither the men or women of games are meant to look like people, they’re molded to fulfill a function—for men their function is violence, for women sex. The difference is that men are given justification. They are given motivations. They think and are driven by purpose. Women have no power outside of their ability to be consumed by men. They have some influence on when and which man they will be consumed by but otherwise they lack agency.


The easy fix seems to be to make more competent female characters. Characters that can be strong without defying their identity as women. They need not be warriors or even wholly suited to their circumstance nor do they have to defy every feminine stereotype (indeed, building a character opposite to a set of stereotypes is still acknowledging and yielding to them). What seems to elude developers so frequently is a female character that is able to make her own decisions and manage the consequences. She doesn’t have to have full control. She doesn’t even have to be the lead. She just has to have her own identity that doesn’t depend on a man.
  
There are exceptions, but outside of Samus or Lara Croft, there just aren’t any major recurring female characters in games. The April Ryans and Chells are too few and far between that they’re only ever the exception to the rule. Rather, women are either detached from the action entirely or are inept when confronted with it. Considering the circumstances of Resident Evil 4, for instance, one would think that Leon might let Ashley have her own weapon or a flashlight or at least get her to open doors for him. But her role is to quiver and wail. She offers nothing to the survival to the player. She’s an untrustworthy, incompetent burden that must be cared for.


Even player controlled female characters are usually only able to interact with the player passively. In RPGs, female party members are often only influenced in battle and most often fail to have a direct impact on the broader events in a story. Even in the rare instances when players control a woman directly, they’re forced to passively avoid obstacles rather than to engage and to surmount them. Compare Velvet Assassin with The Saboteur. Both feature agents in the Second World War infiltrating German occupied territory, but in spite of both titles implying being occupied with the business of subterfuge, only one character is granted the power to fight armies directly, while the other has difficulty surviving a shootout with a single goon.


Women either give the masculine hero information on which he can base his actions, like Athena’s Oracle does for Kratos, or are otherwise capable but defer action to the masculine hero, like Farah does to the Prince of Persia or Elika does to the other Prince of Persia. Elika is an especially baffling case, as she’s even more capable than the protagonist. It’s established early that she is equally as athletic as the Prince, capable of defending herself, more knowledgeable about her world’s mythology, and the game is set not in Persia but her own homeland. What especially sets the Prince and Elika apart is that the latter possesses supernatural powers that keeps the Prince from harm. Yet the player controls the Prince, a character that is far less invested and influential on the world that the game takes place in.


By now this shouldn’t be the case. Women should be represented as more than maidens, whores, or mothers. There are more women playing, developing and discussing video games than ever, so the usual defense that games are a male-exclusive activity—even if it were a legitimate excuse—no longer applies. Even if they are the minority they constitute a very large one. The male dominated industry has made some visible efforts to include women in their casts and make them more valuable characters. They’ve just failed spectacularly. Strong, believable, flawed female protagonists are a moving target for developers, even the ones that are certain that they’ve created them. What is most overlooked is competence.


 

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